A city’s energy comes from not only its infinite little pockets of activity but also from the majesty as a whole. The same can be said of Ewan Gibbs’ meticulous drawings—tiny, pixel-like squares that coalesce into an image only when viewed from a distance. The British artist’s work is all over town this month on posters, flyers and other materials for the Armory Show, New York’s premier showcase of contemporary art. Commissioned to define the visual identity of this year’s fair, Gibbs rendered Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Chrysler Building, Times Square and other Manhattan landmarks in his signature painstaking technique: he transposes black-and-white photos onto graph paper by filling in each minuscule box with marks of varying intensity; the composite grid captures the forms and shades of the original image. Gibbs has drawn portraits of New York before, as well as of Paris, London, hotel rooms and baseball pitchers (he loves the sport)—always producing faint, ethereal images that make you look at familiar subjects from a fresh perspective. Here, he tells us about his recession-proof technique, how he chooses what to draw and which New York landmarks he finds most compelling.
Drawing isn’t terribly in vogue these days. How did you get into it?
It started during the last recession, back in 1993. I thought there must be a way to make interesting art with simple means, like pencil and paper. I would spend a week, two weeks on a single drawing—investing time and effort didn’t cost much or take up much space. I liked how it was just me and the drawing.
Your first images were of hotel rooms. How did you choose that subject matter?
When I was 19 or 20, I was painting interiors, inspired by [Pierre] Bonnard, [Edward] Hopper, [Henri] Matisse, [Johannes] Vermeer. I couldn’t afford to travel to France or wherever, so I would go to the shop and get holiday brochures. They provided an image where the composition was already decided. And they eliminated the anxiety of what to paint. Then I found a book of knitting and crochet patterns. The iconography of these patterns offered a ready-made language of circles and crosses that I could use to translate the found images. I’ve since reduced the language to a single mark, which has a more naturalistic result.
Why did you move on to drawing cities?
After the interiors, I started drawing hotel facades and would photograph hotels wherever I went. In between, I’d take pictures of tourist attractions—Big Ben, the Empire State Building. I realized these photos were even more generic than the facades. I like to find imagery with familiarity that draws people in, and then remove myself from the subject matter. For me, the visual experience is not about reading a narrative into an image—it’s about how we perceive images themselves.
How did you select the landmarks for the Armory Show portraits?
One thing that interests me about the sites I chose to draw for the Armory series is how they will “change” over time. One hundred years from now, a close-up of the Chrysler Building or the Brooklyn Bridge will still feel contemporary, like how a [Claude] Monet painting of the Houses of Parliament in London looks like the building today. We see what he saw—not that I am comparing myself to Monet! Whereas a drawing of Times Square or Bloomingdale’s, which looks contemporary now, will look dated even in 20 years when styles like car shapes will have changed.
The drawings look like they take forever to make. Do they?
It is quite laborious, but the reward is the final image. Circles on graph paper would get boring.
As a visual artist who’s visited the City so many times, what’s still on your must-see list?
This is obvious, but you must go to Grand Central Terminal. When you walk in, you can’t help but be amazed by how ornate it is. It’s beauty put into a very functional building. And as a starting point for a journey, you couldn’t ask for something more magical. To anyone with jet lag, I would recommend this: take a nap, wake up at dusk and walk around. See the Chrysler Building at night when the lights are on.